Prior to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, human rights violations in the host city were exposed by international media organizations. Inspired by the media coverage, senior Michelle Alfini develped an interest with the Olympics and its relationship in human rights issues.
She was also introduced to the issue by her high school friend from Brazil, who was involved with protests leading up to the 2014 World Cup.
“These games are supposed to promote international friendship, but at the same time, the events happen at the expense of human rights,” Alfini said.
As a broadcast journalism major and Honors Fellow, Alfini wanted to combine her passions — the Olympics, journalism and South America — for her undergraduate thesis.
Beginning the research
To start out, Alfini taught herself Portuguese and examined the differences between human rights leading up to the 2014 Sochi and 2016 Rio games and how the media covered them.
Her initial plan was to supplement the paper with a documentary, which ended up turning into a website when in, October 2014, she lost all video footage from her first trip to Brazil.
Alfini’s final multimedia product was a website called “Righting Rio.” She began it exactly a year before the games on Aug. 5, 2015, each month publishing a few articles to make people aware of the human rights issues occurring in the Olympic host city.
Alfini was able to travel to Brazil twice with support from the Lumen Prize, which granted her a $15,000 scholarship to conduct her research abroad.
She was mentored by Associate Professor of Communications Glenn Scott, who has experience covering four summer Olympic games. Though Alfini was able to turn to Scott for help, his role was more of a guide for her.
“Michelle is such a great thinker and doer that I was trying to keep up with her more than she was with me,” Scott said.
The collaborative team began with mapping out a proposal for the Lumen Prize her sophomore year, exploring the idea of media and politics and what happens when a city becomes a host of the Olympics.
Scott said Alfini developed her website completely on her own, as he offered some observations and editing along the way.
“She is a phenomenal worker and just takes information and applies it,” he said. “She is a real tireless worker. I will give her a big idea on Thursday, and she’s done by Monday.”
The first time Alfini visited Brazil was during her fall break while studying abroad in Ecuador in 2014. She spoke with students in Sao Paolo about what it was like before and during the World Cup, including whether or not fires in favelas leading up to the Cup were intentionally caused by the Brazilian government.
A favela is like a shanty town — a group of haphazardly built shelters throughout urban areas in Brazil, often a hotspot for crime and poverty.
“There is a huge housing crisis in Rio, and when the city was developing, the people who couldn’t afford to buy land made these communities out of whatever they had,” Alfini said.
She went to Rio de Janiero next, meeting with Viva Favela, a journalism organization that covers stories about favelas for the media.
After visiting Brazil during her semester abroad, Alfini went back in January 2016 for 10 days, spending her entire trip in Rio de Janiero.
For half of the time, she was in Barra da Tijuca, a neighborhood in Western Rio where most of the Olympic events will be held. Next to the construction of the Olympic park is a favela called Vila Autodromo, where most residents have been evicted because of the Olympics.
“Some people refuse to leave, and the government can’t actually force anyone out, but they really can’t live there anymore,” Alfini said.
The Olympic park sits on top of Vila Autodromo, and the press center is planned to be built on top of the favela.
Barra da Tijuca is one of the newest developments in Rio de Janiero, and Alfini explained it is being made into a new luxury hotel area, using the games as an excuse to rid of the few favelas left.
While in Rio de Janiero, Alfini was on her own, forcing her to reach out to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to help guide her during her research abroad.
She reached out to a community corespondent who lived in a favela to give her a tour of his home. Once at the favela, he told her they would be “going up the hill” to view the town.
Jumping on the back of a motorcycle, she was led up a steep hill, and then brought to the top, where she was able to see the entire favela.
“It’s beautiful and the people who live there are very proud of what they have, but at the same time they know their life would be better if they were not living there,” Alfini said.
The NGOs that Alfini spoke with were very willing to help — talking with her allowed the organizations to get their stories out to the United States and the mainstream media.
She worked with Catalytic Communities, whose interns gave her an understanding of what she was seeing in Rio de Janiero.
“I would say to them, ‘Hey, I saw this protest, they were shouting this and this what I think it means. Does it have a further meaning?’” Alfini said. “They were more like my assistants, and Viva Favela was more my guide and my story.”
Alfini presented her research at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s Southeast Colloquium at Louisiana State University in March as the only undergraduate to present her work.
“It was terrifying because people with Ph. Ds were presenting their research, but everyone who was there was very impressed and supportive that I did all this work as an undergraduate student,” Alfini said.
After completing her thesis, Alfini will sit down with Scott and two other faculty members to defend it, and to interpret her findings and the implications for the media system.
“What attracted me to this idea in the first place was that I knew it was something a lot of people don’t know about, especially in the United States,” she said. “Most people don’t know what a favela is because it’s not something that Americans necessarily encounter. I wanted to do something that brought to light an issue that people weren’t aware about.”